“Amandla” is the Xhosa word for “power,” and Lee Hirsch’s vigorous, visually restless documentary–produced for the Cinemax cable network but being given a limited theatrical release–is about the power that the music of protest gave to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Using a mixture of newsreel footage, narration, interviews and snippets of songs, the film offers at once an accessible history of the government’s segregationist policies and an impressionistic portrait of the opposition to it, becoming in the process both a memorial to those who suffered (and in many cases died) as well as a paean to the energy and impact of the artists whose creations served as the soul of the movement for freedom and equality. Although the result sometimes feels rushed, overstuffed and technically a bit too flashy, the emotional resonance of subject wins out over the stylistic hyperbole.
The picture begins with the death of Vuyisile Mini, the singer and activist whose name is synonymous with the music of protest, who was executed and secretly buried in 1964. It then turns to found footage–some narrated by Walter Cronkite–to outline the history of apartheid, from its establishment in 1948 and the deportation of blacks to separate townships to the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1964, the Soweto uprising of 1976, the international pressure that supported the internal movement for change, and the final dismantlement of the system in the election of 1994, which brought Mandela to power. Throughout, the role of song in the struggle against the system is emphasized; the point is nicely capped by a shot of Mandela himself dancing to it after his election. The conclusion returns to Mini, whose remains were unearthed and reburied with honors in 1998.
This story could hardly fail to move viewers, and though Hirsch and his colleagues rely a bit too much on fancy editing and overly emphatic technique, they can’t dull the narrative’s emotional punch. As is the case with many documentaries, in “Amandla!” the drive for style sometimes seems at odds with the simple power of the message. But here substance definitely wins out.